I was 23 years old, right out of graduate school at Notre Dame, when I was hired to teach Theology and English at Montgomery Catholic High in 1985.
By then, "Sister Martha" Belke had been teaching Chemistry and Introductory Physical Science there for almost twenty five years.
She had been assigned to be my mentor, but I confess I was too cocky to seek out her help early in the process. No matter. Teaching has a way of humbling people, especially in their first year, and Sister knew to be patient. I can’t remember the details, but somewhere around early October there had been an incident between two freshman boys involving toothpaste in my class. “They won’t listen to me, “ I confided to her, exasperated, “and it seems like every day is a battle. “
She looked at me, choosing her words carefully. “Teachers talk too much,“ was all she said.
At first I was a little taken back. “Of course they talk a lot, “ I thought to myself. “It’s called TEACHING.” But as I considered it, I realized she had nailed my problem in those four words: I had come out of graduate school, where lecture was the only mode of teaching, and so I naturally adopted that model for my classes. But it will come as no surprise to any veteran teacher that students cannot sustain their attention for 60 straight minutes, and this was leading to a lot of mischief and disruption. I began varying things up—lecture, group work, 5-minute video clips, research, mini-competitions, visits to the library, different types of assessments—seeking Sister Martha’s help each step of the way. In short, I was learning the CRAFT of high school teaching, and now, thirty years later as a high school teacher and principal, I credit her for helping me learn this craft in what has become my life’s work.
It was with real sadness, then, that I heard she had passed away at the Sisters of Loretto motherhouse in Nerinx, KY this last weekend.
She was the last of the Loretto sisters to teach at Montgomery Catholic Preparatory School, retiring in 1997. One hundred and twenty five years earlier, in 1873, four hearty women from that order were invited by Bishop Quinlan of Mobile to start a Catholic school for girls in Montgomery, Al--the capital city of the Confederacy, a city still ravaged by the after-effects of a disastrous war. There was strong anti-Catholic prejudice in the south at this time, and certainly these strangely dressed "outsiders" raised suspicions, but that didn’t matter to the sisters—they were doing God’s work. The opening of the school was delayed by a yellow fever epidemic, and the nuns offered their school building as an auxiliary hospital, caring for the sick in such an admirable way that they earned the trust and respect of the city fathers, many of whom placed their daughters in the school when it opened. Though it became a co-ed school in 1929 and a diocesan school in the 1950's, the school remains as the oldest continuous school in the state of Alabama, private or public.
Sister Martha came from that same stock of tough women. Once, after listening to a faculty member complain about being asked to give up her free period to cover a class for a sick colleague, she told her: “It’ll be OK. I was only 19, two years short of getting my degree, when I got my first teaching assignment. I had fifty kids that year… “ (pausing for effect). “Twenty five were in the first grade,” she continued, “and twenty five were in the second grade. There was an aisle down the middle, and if they looked out across the aisle, they had their recess taken away.”
Along with Miz O's “twelve paragraphs,” Coach Arban’s “reading quizzes,” Mr. Frye’s challenging Algebra tests, Mr. Tokarz's Freshman theology class, and Dr. Doyle's Physics and Calculus classes, Sister Martha’s freshman year “blackbox” experiment for I.P.S. and “sludge test” for juniors in Chemistry were the anchors of Montgomery Catholic High’s academic program for nearly a quarter of a century. Sister believed that students should DO SCIENCE in high school classrooms rather than LEARN ABOUT science in textbooks—she was a “hands-on” teacher long before “hands-on” became a catch phrase—and she spent countless hours setting up labs for her kids in class for the next day so that they could learn as scientists learn. As is true of every excellent, iconic high school teacher I’ve ever met, it was a labor of love for Sister Martha; she cared about her students and the kind of people they became, and worked hard to challenge and stretch them in her classes.
One of the great highlights of my professional life was inviting Sister Martha back to Catholic High for the dedication of the Sister Martha Belke Science building in 1998. She commented then that despite the 150+ years the Loretto sisters had founded, staffed and led Catholic schools across the country, this was the first time, to her knowledge, that a building had been named after one of them. I'm pretty sure they deserve more than just one, but we were happy to be the first.
Her picture, shown here, hangs in the Belke Building today. May she and the magnificent Loretto sisters always be an inspiration to Montgomery Catholic Preparatory School, to its students and to its teachers. We owe her, and them, a great debt.